Faculty Scholarly Dissemination Grants


Realism/Relativism and the Roots of the Environmental Crisis


Philosophy Department


College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Date Range



Social and Behavioral Sciences


It is usually assumed that relativism and realism are incompatible. Relativism is a view that, depending on its scope and domain of inquiry, construes our claims about what is right, what is true, even what is real, as dependent on the framework in which they are articulated and/or asserted. The forces that shape these frameworks, again, depending on the species of relativism, may include factors such as historical epoch, culture, religion, class, etc. While there are many varieties of relativism, it is easy to see how any one can lead to a form of anti-realism: if our claims about what is right, good, true, etc. cannot be assessed independently of particular frameworks, and different frameworks make conflicting claims about what is right, good, true, etc., then how could there be any content to our claims beyond what is determined by the frameworks themselves? Anti-realism, in turn, leads to a set of uncomfortable consequences. It seems that anything is as right as anything else. Meaning drains out of our lives. We lose our ability to criticize what we feel is wrong in other frameworks. We are forced to wave our hands telling roundabout stories when confronted with what seems to be the real, framework-independent success of science, like life-saving vaccines and airplanes flying through the sky. In my paper I argue that relativism and realism are, in fact, compatible. The framework dependence of our normative claims does not preclude their being constrained by and responsive to a reality independent of them. The two views are compatible when we recognize the richness of the world around us and the incommensurable trade-offs that we are forced to make among different possible ways of engaging it. Realism, then, becomes an exciting possibility for the ecologically concerned cultural relativist: while we cannot run to the romanticized life of a culture more attuned to Nature, we can use an appreciation of different modes of engagement to reevaluate and reshape our own relationship to the world around us. This opens the way not just to the patchwork solutions of science, which relies on the same detached modes of engagement that have led to the current environmental crisis, but to a transformation of the problem at its very roots.

Conference Name

International Conference on Towards Ecocultural Ethics: Recent Trends and Future Directions

Conference Location

Goa, India

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